Inspiration: Postcards From Cuba
Now that official relations between the United States and Cuba have started to thaw, the future of the Caribbean island’s built heritage is an open question—one that Linda Bruckheimer has considered in depth. Bruckheimer, a novelist, photographer, and trustee emerita of the National Trust, traveled to Cuba in 2014 with the National Trust Council, a group of preservation leaders. We asked her about her experiences there; read on for her answers and a selection of her photos from the trip.
What made you decide to take this trip?
The mystique of Cuba had always fascinated me, but during the post-revolution decades, it had become a stranger, no longer the tropical paradise brimming with tourists, political intrigue, and vibrant night life. In spite of random photographs and anti-Castro newspaper clippings, for years the “real” Cuba remained shrouded in a mysterious bubble.
When colorful stories of Havana began to drift back from visitors, my curiosity and sense of adventure were piqued. In a world that is increasingly generic, I am always searching for authenticity.
This was my first trip, but I have an urgency to return, mostly because I fear that drastic changes will soon occur.
What were the highlights of your visit?
What impressed me the most were the lively street scenes and vignettes of ordinary life. One memorable spot was the crumbling staircase to the paladar, or family-run restaurant, known as La Guarida, where we passed frescoed images of Fidel and colorful laundry draped across the mezzanine.
Other high points: the Bacardi building, an Art Deco masterpiece; The Museum of the Revolution; the Hotel Nacional; Finca Vigía (Hemingway’s estate); and last but not least the Restaurante Floridita—the birthplace of the daiquiri—which is memorialized by Hemingway’s bronze statue perched on his favorite bar stool.
What was the most interesting aspect of Cuba from a photography point of view?
The decaying elegance and architectural majesty mixed with the vibrant turquoise and pink facades create endless “Kodak moments.”
Everywhere you look there are cigar-smoking ladies; “La Revolución” banners; and brides sitting atop vintage convertibles, their tulle and lace blowing in the breeze as they parade through Havana streets.
While other countries have spectacular scenery, it is often impossible to get a shot of a 15th-century monastery without including garish neon signs from a restaurant franchise. Havana’s perfectly preserved streets offer a rare visual continuity.
What is the biggest challenge to preservation efforts there?
People who live in circumstances that have remained untouched for decades are [often] anxious for change. As the anticipated political shifts occur, the temptation for Cubans to make up for lost time and jump on the progress bandwagon will be a huge stumbling block, one that is not unique to Cuba.
Although there is a legitimate need to accommodate the surge in tourism, this will trigger a chain reaction of events. There will be a strong impulse to remove eyesores and populate blighted neighborhoods with new hotels and businesses. As others have learned, this is a slippery slope. I hope these decisions are made with thoughtful assessment and a master plan.
What can we learn from Cuba regarding preservation?
When time has stood still—as it virtually has in Cuba—and new construction isn’t an option, people are forced to make the most of what they have by preserving it. This reality seems to have bolstered Cubans’ ingenuity and promoted national pride in their architecture.
It has also created a demand for old-world craftspeople. We visited a school that specialized in teaching the arts of wood carving, decorative tile, glasswork, and hand-wrought ironwork. It was an impressive display of talent and a convincing endorsement for restoration.
This same philosophy of “recycling” applies to automobiles. When we were curious about the upkeep of Havana’s vintage cars, our guide mentioned a “boneyard” that supplies spark plugs, batteries, tires and other necessary pieces. When we asked what would happen once all the available parts were gone, the man didn’t miss a beat. “We’re Cubans!” he boasted. “We’ll think of something.”
Now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are thawing, how do you think/hope things will change there, regarding preservation?
Wishing Cuba could stay exactly as it is now is a luxury saved for the historian or visitor. Tourism is a reality and so is the need to elevate the standard of living of the Cuban people. But neither one is an overnight process. If done in haste, major mistakes will be made.
Predictably, global corporations will descend on Cuba like locusts with their usual sweet talk. But the “progress” they preach is a runaway train and once certain decisions are made there is no turning back. Often, it ends up killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Tourists are fickle and quickly move on to the next hot spot.
I sincerely hope they can slow down and take the road less traveled. I would hate to see Cuba turned into a typical tourist attraction.
Are there any Cuban photographers or other artists whose work you particularly admire?
I have high regard for Sandra Ramos, whose home and studio we visited. Her internationally renowned work is a reflection of political and social reality and reveals her feeling of loss and divided allegiance, sentiments that strike a deep emotional chord throughout the world.
I also admire the brilliant vintage photographs of Ramiro Fernandez. They depict pre-Castro Cuba when it was bustling with tourists and old-world glamour. The photos capture the heart and soul of Cuba and highlight the glory days. This was the Cuba that I had imagined. This is the magical place that I hope will soon reappear.